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New search for missing man taps technology

By Mike Youds
July 16, 2016 2:58 P.M.
Robert Atwood and Sebastian Bicklmaier with drone above Stump Creek Saturday.

A co-ordinated search of the Stump Lake area Saturday didn’t turn up any clues on the fate of Dean Kelly Morrison, although the rallying of support gave a greater sense of hope to his long suffering mother.

As well, an eye in the sky perspective provided by a drone — the first search application by Kamloops-based Hummingbird Drones — holds out the possibility that something new might be discovered in the steep, rugged terrain above Stump Creek.

About 30 people — including private investigators, search and rescue volunteers from Merritt and Kamloops, and volunteers from Vancouver — assembled Saturday morning at Stump Lake Ranch, 35 km south of Kamloops off Hwy. 5A. Morrison was last seen at the ranch on Oct. 22, 2013.

Denis Gagnon, a former Mountie with BCSI Investigations, has renewed the investigation into Morrison’s sudden disappearance, providing his services free of charge.

"The last place seen is the first place you look," Gagnon said. He has no idea how long the investigation may take.

"As long as I need to find him," he said. "I'm very stubborn. I've done this a long time. We're going to look at all the avenues."

A former editor of the Merritt Herald, Morrison was working as a contract painter at the ranch. His behaviour, however, had deteriorated as he went through a marital breakup. The father of three disappeared at age 44.

Dan Fremlin, ranch manager, is believed to be the last person to see Morrison alive. 

Fremlin along with other ranch staff took part in a thorough search immediately after Morrison’s disappearance, so he wasn’t expecting any fresh clues to be discovered Saturday.

“I am sure from the mother’s standpoint, yes, you want to know what happened, and from our standpoint,” Fremlin said. “None of it makes sense. We spent three weeks searching everywhere with binoculars,” along with an RCMP helicopter.

“There is a chance we missed him,” he added.

Nothing in Morrison’s behaviour suggested to Fremlin that he was suicidal. The painter was asked to leave the ranch and was in the midst of moving his broken down truck and trailer.

Elizabeth Faber, Morrison’s mother, also took part in a search of Hwy. 5A along the lake. She was clearly distraught still by the circumstances. With friends, she has already scoured the area on several occasion over the last couple of years.

“It’s hard,” she said. “When I do come, I feel like I’m visiting a graveside, only because it’s the last place he was seen alive. I still have hope something’s going to happen. I don’t think I can go on without knowing.”

Robert Atwood and a team from Hummingbird Drones have held training exercises with Kamloops Search and Rescue, but this was the first opportunity to use a drone on an active mission.

“You’re going to find bones everywhere,” one of the ranch employees told the drone team. Those would be cattle, deer and coyote bones, though, remains commonly found in the area.

“Flying is the easy part,” Atwood said. “It’s scanning the data that takes time. We’ll probably share the video with KSAR and BCSI.”

The company is only a year old and wasn’t around when the initial searches were done. 

They spent a couple of hours flying over narrow ravine that separates Stump Lake from Tullee Lake to the south. A pilot controls the drone while a teammate maintains visual contact, a legal requirement.

“As you take to the technology that’s evolving, you very quickly see how many thousands of applications there are,” Atwell said.

They’ve been busy so far this year, providing wildfire detection services out of Ft. St. John for recent fires in the North. They also did a eulachon predator survey on the Skeena River for the Metlakatla First Nation, getting a bird’s eye view of sea lions and whales.

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